What did LSD do to the brain, exactly, in order to set off the fireworks that so fascinated brain scientists, hippies, and government spies? And why, after years of massive, unauthorized field-testing, so to speak, was there so little evidence implicating LSD as an addictive drug? Powerful as it was, LSD did not show any of the classic attributes of addiction, such as withdrawal or craving, although it was possible to build up a tolerance to its effects with repeated dosings.
According to an early theory, the aberrant mental functioning produced by the tiniest dose of LSD was due to interference with normal levels of serotonin in the brain. In 1954, chemists D.W. Woolley and E. Shaw had published an article in Science strongly arguing that serotonin was the likely biochemical basis for major mental disorders. Wooley and Shaw confirmed that the most acutely serotonin-active substance known to man was the ergot derivative known as LSD. LSD’s chemical architecture looked eerily similar to that of serotonin.
While the idea of LSD as a “model” of psychosis did not hold up, the link between serotonin and mental disorders was there all along. The strongly serotonin-mediated mental disorders, researchers ultimately discovered, were depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
The psychedelic drugs, new and old, are not only among the most powerful ever discovered, but are also tremendously difficult to study and utilize responsibly. Nonetheless, these drugs have always played an important part of the story, even though they are not addictive. LSD, mescaline, DMT, psilocybin, Ibogaine, ayahuasca—none of these appeal to lab rats as a drug of abuse.
Psychedelics have been exhorted, and occasionally deployed, as specific anti-craving medications for more than 50 years now. The psychedelic experience seems to assist some addicts in their efforts to remain sober and abstinent. However, the risks of casual experimentation with these substances should be obvious. Recent research on Ecstasy only makes this point more emphatically.
In the 1950s, along with Aldous Huxley and others, Al Hubbard came to believe that the more mystical or “transpersonal” experiences LSD sometimes afforded might hold considerable psychotherapeutic potential. With LSD provided by Hubbard, Canadians Abram Hoffer, Ross Mclean, and Humphrey Osmond pursued the idea of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism. In the U.S, Oscar Janiger, Sanford Unger, and others undertook research on LSD and alcoholism on the West Coast.
Throughout this period, there were LSD clinics operating in England and Europe. European LSD therapists tended to use very low doses as an adjunct to traditional psychoanalytic techniques. But North American researchers took a different, bolder approach. When “psychedelic” therapy began to catch on in Canada and the United States, therapists typically gave patients only one or two sessions at very high doses. These early efforts were aimed at producing spontaneous breakthroughs or recoveries in alcoholics through some manner of religious epiphany or inner conversion experience. The only other quasi-medical approach of the day, the Schick Treatment Center’s brand of “aversion therapy,” was not seen to produce very compelling long-term recovery rates, and subsequently fell out of favor.
In this light, the early successes with LSD therapy, sometimes claimed to be in the 50-75 per cent range, looked noteworthy indeed. However, the design and criteria of the LSD/alcoholism studies varied so widely that it has never been possible to draw definitive conclusions about the work that was done, except to say that LSD therapy seemed to be strikingly effective for certain alcoholics. Some patients were claiming that two or three trips on LSD were worth years of conventional psychotherapy—a claim not heard again until the advent of Prozac thirty years later.
“I’ve taken lysergic acid several times, and have collected considerable information about it,” Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, disclosed in a private letter written in 1958. “At the moment, it can only be used for research purposes. It would certainly be a huge misfortune if it ever got loose in the general public without a careful preparation as to what the drug is and what the meaning of its effects may be.” Like many others, Wilson was excited by LSD’s potential as a treatment for chronic alcoholism. Even Hollywood was hip to the new therapy. Cary Grant, among others, took LSD under psychiatric supervision and pronounced it immensely helpful as a tool for psychological insight. Andre Previn, Jack Nicholson, and James Coburn agreed. (It could be argued that the human potential movement began here).
But the early addiction research was stuck in an impossible situation. Some of the best tools available to scientists for studying the workings of the human brain were the very drugs that were increasingly prohibited under state and federal law--drugs like heroin, cocaine, PCP, LSD, and marijuana.
By the early 1970s, meaningful research involving any of these substances had virtually ground to a halt, and grants for clinical work had dried up completely.